Peter Carpenter, or, A Bloomsbury Boy in the Baltic

Shoeblacks of the Central or “Red” Brigade.  Image in Evening Hours volume 1 (1874) between pages 224 and 225.

In my recent post on Robert Watts I described the work of the Shoeblack Society.  The Society, which had close links with the Ragged School movement, aimed to rescue young London boys from a life of poverty, and indeed of crime, by instilling in them the skills they needed to earn a living.  Much can be learnt about these boys from the letters they wrote to Marcus Ware, a leading light of this philanthropic organization, and from the journals that Ware himself wrote over a number of years.  These documents are not only informative but also intensely moving.

Three particularly interesting letters were written to Ware between April 1856 and January 1858.  Read alongside entries in the journal for those years they allow us to piece together extraordinary events in the life of one of the young shoeblacks.  His name was Peter Carpenter, and, although he was a boy from the streets of the capital, he found himself embroiled in an extraordinary adventure that took him a very long way from home.

Compton Place and neighbouring courts.  From a plan dated 1809.

Peter Carpenter was born in Bloomsbury early in 1840, the son of Michael—a gas pipe layer—and Ann.  At the time of Peter’s birth Michael was nearing thirty.  He was from Ireland, whereas Ann, who was two years younger, was a Londoner.  In 1840 the family were living on the Foundling Hospital Estate at 21 Compton Place, a squalid yard occupied by poor Irish immigrants, and blighted by outbreaks of antisocial behaviour.  The census taken in 1841, that is to say in the year after Peter’s birth, provides a stark picture of a cramped residence divided into nine rooms occupied by fourteen individuals.

One cannot imagine that Peter’s was anything other than a troubled childhood.  When he was only eight his father died of typhoid fever.  Later a little sister fell ill, and he was at her bedside in the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormand Street when she finally slipped away.  He was thirteen, and she, Mary Ann, was nine.  By the time he was sixteen his mother was dead, too, although the circumstances of her death are not known.

Now an orphan, Peter was all but cut adrift.  But he attended the ragged school which, appropriately, had been established in Compton Place in 1847, but had now moved to Brunswick Street.  And there we catch glimpses of him, an occasional figure in the pages of Ware’s journal.  “Peter came tonight”—a Sunday late in 1855—“saying that he had no home and nothing to do.”  He asked Ware if he might be given a roof over his head, and Ware, evidently moved by his predicament, promised to try him out in the Shoeblack Society.

A London cat’s-meat man.  Image in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly volume 10 (1880) page 529.

Not that Ware was uncritical.  A devout Christian, he had been disturbed some time ago that Peter had been frequenting Manning’s, a coffee house in Maiden Lane.  “This is a low place,” he wrote in his journal.  Peter, who at the time was barely twelve years old, was working for one of the cat’s-meat men who took boiled horseflesh from the knackers’ yard on Cow Cross Street round the houses, selling it, according to Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, for tuppence ha’penny a pound.  But in December 1855, when he was approaching the age of sixteen, he went out to work as a shoeblack.

Sir Thomas Troubridge, 3rd Baronet with Louisa Jane, Lady Troubridge.  Photograph by Camille Silvy dated 16 November 1860.  © National Portrait Gallery

At the time he was living with his grandmother, Catherine Maley, in Chapel Grove in Somers Town.  Quite possibly their relationship was not a harmonious one, for at some point in December 1855 or January 1856 Peter went to live with a family named Callaghan in Seven Dials, who had once had a connection with his father.  But towards the end of January everything changed.  And the person responsible for that change was a woman by the name of Louisa Jane Troubridge.

Louisa Jane Gurney, the daughter of an established Norfolk family, had married Sir Thomas Troubridge in the autumn of 1855.  Troubridge was an officer in the 7th Royal Fusiliers, in which capacity he fought in the Crimean War.  He was exceptionally courageous.  At the Battle of Inkerman in 1854, in spite of losing his right leg and left foot, he stayed at his post, propped up against a gun carriage.

Young seamstresses at work in The Song of the Shirt by Frank Holl.  Painting dated c.1874.

Troubridge also had navy connections—both his father and his maternal grandfather had been admirals—which may explain the part Louisa Jane now played in the life of Peter Carpenter.  For late in January she applied to the Shoeblack Society for three boys to be sent down to Portsmouth to be enrolled as naval apprentices.  We need not be too surprised at the interest she took in these impoverished young Londoners, for she had charitable instincts, and we find her again as a patron of the Institution for the Employment of Needlewomen, an organization which was praised in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round, and which with the battle-cry “a fair wage for a fair day’s work” aimed to provide an alternative to the workhouse.

Girls in the Lambeth “Ragged School”.  Image in The Illustrated London News 11 April 1846.

More to the point, she visited the Lambeth Ragged School in 1846, as did Dickens, and two rather charming images of lessons in full swing appeared in The Illustrated London News.  The schoolmistresses in the girls’ classroom show a tender concern for their young charges—who are, indeed, dressed in very ragged clothes—while some of their male colleagues appear to be dealing with the boys pretty strictly.  One can see why Louisa was moved to do something for children like these.

Boys in the Lambeth “Ragged School”.  Image in The Illustrated London News 11 April 1846.

On the 31st of January the three boys—Peter from Brunswick Street, the other two from St Anne’s Lane in Westminster—went down to Portsmouth.  They were accompanied by John Richard Fowler, who, like Ware, was a barrister, and was Louisa Jane Troubridge’s contact at the school.  Ware paid Peter’s fare.  He gave him money—a pound for his outfit, two shillings tenpence pocket money, a bit extra to top up his savings account—and copies of the New Testament and The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Fowler travelled down on the train with the three boys, and left them on board a now decrepit HMS Victory, where they were enrolled.  He then returned home, alone.

HMS Alert, sister ship of the Harrier, in icy waters.  Image in The Illustrated London News 4 November 1876.

Peter was sent on board HMS Harrier, and found himself in the Baltic Sea at the tail end of the Crimean War.  In fact the peace negotiations were under way in Paris at just the time he sailed north—in February—and had been concluded by the time he sent his first letter to Ware at the end of April.  One might well think that he had had a narrow escape.  Interestingly, though, it was not the threat of hostilities that preoccupied him so much as the very real discomfort of freezing northern temperatures.  “We suffered a great deal from the cold,” he confided in the letter.  At one point the Harrier had been frozen in off the coast of Sweden, an experience that must have left Peter, who was only turning sixteen, feeling very far from home.

But the Harrier was not in the Baltic for long, and it was back in Portsmouth by the end of April.  And there the boy from the slums of Bloomsbury found himself caught up in an event of quite remarkable magnificence.  This was the Grand Naval Review of 1856, a public celebration to mark the return of the Baltic Fleet, and an unparalleled opportunity for the illustrated press to show just what it was capable of.

Title picture for a special report of the Grand Naval Review of 23 April 1856.  Image in The Illustrated London News 26 April 1856.

No-one in those days did it better than The Illustrated London News.  On the Saturday after the review, which took place on Wednesday the 23rd of April, a supplement was published in which every aspect of the occasion was reported in detail.  The many illustrations included images of vessels and their crews and a plan of Spithead—the water between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight—showing all the ships and their manoeuvres.

The reporters for the News rose to the occasion with unabashed lyricism, describing the feverish preparations in Portsmouth, the arrival of the crowds, the excitement and the anticipation.  The day of the review

broke in the brightest and most auspicious manner.  It was a cold, grey, silvery dawn that threw every part of the vast scene into a misty tone, increasing the distance of distant objects, and causing the Isle of Wight to assume a pale and dim aspect.

Plan of the manoeuvres for the Grand Naval Review.  Image in The Illustrated London News 26 April 1856.

The arrival of Queen Victoria in the royal yacht called for prose equally purple.  The mist lifted, and as the monarch floated past the crowds

thousands of voices cheered and hurraed, bands of music threw out tones that grew mellow as they stole along the waters, and the attendant shipping and spectators joined in the pleasing demonstration.

A ship getting under way in the Grand Naval Review.  Image in The Illustrated London News 26 April 1856.

However, nothing that the newspapers published compares with Peter’s own observations in his letter to Ware.  Although written awkwardly, and clumsily, they are shot through with unaffected and wide-eyed wonder.  The ships

came down in three lines with the Queen at their head on board the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert and the ships being all dressed with flags added a deal to the beauty of the scene, at night at nine o’clock the ships were all illuminated with Blue lights which lasted for about 5 minutes and after they were out all and every one of the ships sent up rockets which they kept doing for about 2 hours when all again was quiet and there ended the review of the greatest number of ships that were ever before assembled in the world.

Photograph of Martin Ware.  © Surrey History Centre

But just as the rockets, fired from the ships, sparkled only briefly in the night sky, so Peter soon faded from sight.  When he wrote to Ware in May 1857 he was still on the Harrier, stationed off the coast of South America.  The last of his three letters, which was written in January 1858, was sent from Rio de Janeiro.

He worried a great deal about his other sister, Emma, who was then about ten or eleven.  Following the death of their parents she had moved around, from their stepfather to their older brother, whose name was John, and then to their grandmother, Catherine Maley, in Somers Town.  After that she was sent to the workhouse school in Forest Gate in East London.  Quite possibly she was sent there for her own protection, for in his 1858 letter Peter referred to the worrying news, relayed to him by John, that “my Grandmother as ben behaving bad to my little sister”.

The dust-heaps in Somers Town in 1836.  Image in Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 (1878) page 372.

But what became of Peter after the ink had dried on the last of his three letter to Martin Ware is a mystery.  He cannot be traced with certainty in the censuses, and there is no death certificate that can be convincingly shown to be his.  One might guess that he emigrated, for as a young seaman he had already seen the wider world, and there was little to keep him in England.  Indeed, in the passenger lists for 1869 a Peter Carpenter boarded a ship at Liverpool, bound for Quebec.  He was nineteen, which is exactly the age our Peter would have been.  Maybe, then, we have found him, at the very point at which he set off on another adventure.  A much bigger adventure.  And, one hopes, a successful and a happy one.

© london-overlooked 2020


The Short and Sad and Troubled Life of Robert Watts

Charles Dickens’s Deputy, or, The Other Mystery of Edwin Drood

How to Get Sent to a Victorian Reform School

Rescuing George Ruby, or, Charles Dickens and the Crossing Sweeper

Leave a Comment